Jessica Hunt slipped her toes into the murky water of Lake Busbee. On a breezy Sunday afternoon, the Myrtle Beach woman simply wanted to cool her feet before getting back on the road.
“I used to come here every day,” the 36-year-old said, adding that she lost 60 pounds exercising around the man-made lake. “It’s been here all my life. I love it.”
Like many locals, Hunt doesn’t want to see anything happen to Busbee, a popular spot for joggers, dog walkers and nature photographers on U.S. 501 near the Waccamaw River.
The 330-acre lake was built decades ago as a cooling pond for the Grainger Steam Plant that once stood on the other side of U.S. 501. But the plant closed in 2012 and the site was cleared last year.
The lake now serves only as a landmark, and local officials don’t know what do with it.
Conway leaders will hold a public meeting on Sept. 18 at city hall to solicit ideas for the property. The land is owned by the state-run utility Santee Cooper, though it could soon wind up in the city’s hands.
“Santee Cooper has kind of asked the city to take it,” said Adam Emrick, Conway’s interim city administrator. “We’ve been mulling it over for a number of months, but we kind of want the public to have a say in it and give us their ideas because, really, the use of that lake would be limited to just seeing it. You can’t fish in it, can’t swim in it, can’t boat on it. And the expense of keeping it a lake is pretty high because you have to pump it full.”
Santee Cooper has told the city that it spends about $100,000 per year pumping water into the lake and maintaining the landscaping. Along with those costs, utility officials have also cautioned that there could be unplanned expenses, such as treating an algae bloom.
Some environmentalists have suggested the city allow the site to return to what it naturally is — a wetlands. But some locals fear the property would become an eyesore if it’s not a lake, and those who frequent Busbee don’t want the site to change.
“Man, I’d love to see people fight for it,” said Brandon Todd, a 15-year-old who lives near the lake. “It’s a place where I can get away from home, be myself, just relax and not have not have to worry about much.”
Todd said he’s fished for bass in the lake and used to boat in Busbee until he was told he couldn’t do that.
“I’d like for them to start letting kayaks and other little boats like that come back in here,” he said. “Let other people be actually able to go around in here.”
Cristal Bivainis, 43, and her 85-year-old father Kell Culp often come to the lake to walk in the winter. But when the temperature dropped on Sunday, the Conway residents decided the day was perfect to stroll along the 2.3-mile gravel path trail that weaves around Busbee.
“We’d like it to stay this way,” Bivainis said. “We want to be able to walk out here. It’s easy access for people to be able to enjoy walking outside instead of going to a gym where you’re stuck indoors.”
For Rob Russo, Busbee is the ideal spot to take Sam, his 13-year-old chocolate lab. When he’s not waking his dog, Russo said he enjoys photographing the birds and animals he sees at the lake.
He’s captured images of eagles, ospreys and alligators there.
“I like it because there is wildlife,” he said. “This is probably where I see the most birds … It’s just a nice place to be able to come.”
Some Busbee supporters said they would like to see the trail improved or a larger picnic area with grills and amenities for visitors.
Some also noticed new signs that say fishing and boating are prohibited at the lake.
Although people have been enjoying those activities there for years, Emrick said they probably shouldn’t have been. The signs were posted as part of the transition from the utility to the city.
“They’ve not allowed fishing for years,” Emrick said. “People have just done it.”
"Without further risk assessment studies, Santee Cooper agreed to restrict public access to the cooling pond site," Bradley said, adding that the restrictions would remain regardless of what happens to the lake. "This agreement led DHEC to grant an approval of the closure plan without further study. The idea of this pond being used as a fishing resource was never evaluated in detail."
By April, the deed restrictions had been finalized and the signs went up.
"The restrictions that have been set in place envisioned the possibility of keeping the water in the pond (e.g., for aesthetic purposes) as well as any future redevelopment of the site," Bradley said. "The deed restrictions do not prohibit a boardwalk or other similar structure that would allow the public to enjoy the 'scenic nature of Lake Busbee.'"
Even if the lake becomes a wetlands, Emrick said the city could keep the Busbee walking trail.
“I don’t know that there’s any reason the pathway around the lake would have to go anywhere if the lake went away,” he said. “That’s something to consider, too.”
But Conway natives like Hunt don’t want the city to consider any other options for Busbee.
Although she lives at the beach now, Hunt’s mother still lives near the lake and she likes to visit the water when she needs to unwind.
“It’s a fixture in the area,” she said. “Tell them not to drain it.”